In Our Corner: Responding to Microaggressions in the Pursuit of Self-Acceptance

Sticks & Stones (Variation #1)

Alexander William Kinglake, 1833

“Sticks and stones may break my bones

But words will never hurt me”

Sticks & Stones (Variation #2)

The African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Christian Recorder, March 1862.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never break me.”

Sticks & Stones (Variation #3)

Absent Friends, 2004.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can tear me apart.”

Catch A Nigger by His Toe

A Children’s Counting Rhyme (1888)

“Eeny, meena, mina, mo,

Catch a nigger by the toe,

If he hollers let him go,

Eena, meena, mina, mo”

“So, let me try to understand this video. Here are a group of young Black men who are wearing baggy clothes with their pants hanging off their waists acting like human beings. Go figure? Gentlemen, you make your families proud. Outstanding!!!!”

  • George Saint Louis. Writer, LinkedIn, July 28, 2020

My Dear Readers,

At the time of this writing, as our country continues to struggle with COVID-19, 6.09 million Americans have contracted the disease with over 185,000 deaths. That is the national toll, tangible numbers signifying the trauma that we all as Americans have experienced in the last six months. What is not as easily visible yet has also been widely experienced are the microaggressions suffered by black, brown, and Indigenous people of color (BBIPOC) at the hands of others.

Microaggressions are those common, daily, often brief, verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative prejudicial slights and insults towards any group, particularly culturally or racially marginalized groups.

The words of George Saint Louis quoted in the opening of this blog are an example of these microaggressions.

Recently, I saw a video showing compassionate assistance given to an elderly white couple by a three, young-adult black men.  The elders were both nearing 100 years old. The men, upon seeing that the husband was unable to get his wife into their vehicle, assisted them by physically placing the woman into the vehicle and then helping the elderly man into the driver’s seat as well.

This video was viewed over 4.5 million times on Facebook and now was being shown on LinkedIn.

George Saint Louis’ statement was in response to this video.

His words were racist, sarcastic and demeaning. They were hurled with the intent to ridicule and inflict psychological harm on a group of young black men.

Instead of asking why George Saint Louis chose to respond in that manner, I ask what about the young men?

What follows after the psychological assault? How are they impacted as individuals? Are such assaults expected to be forgiven and forgotten? Are they expected to simply ignore the words and actions and brush them aside like the “Sticks and Stones” rhyme taught?

During America’s slave period, the whip also known as the “lash” was utilized to shame, humiliate and psychologically intimidate enslaved people into submission. Its impact was further increased when other enslaved people were required to observe the lashing of their peers to heighten the shame of the ordeal. Today, the observance and similar outcome is achieved via social media as seen by the 4.5 million Facebook viewers of the three young black men seeking to assist an elderly white couple.

The injuries endured from microaggressions remain permanent wounds embedded upon the psychological self that never, ever go away.  All African Americans have memories they could share of psychological trauma created by microaggressions.

For example, I remember as a child growing up in the segregated South, being told to leave the homes of white playmates for no other reason than for the color of my skin. I can attest that the psychological pain from incidences like that is everlasting and the wounds from these will reopen and bleed when such microaggressions occur later in life.

This continual reopening of wounds is due to the vulnerability of never knowing when, where or from whom, the comment, action, behavior or seemingly innocent question would be coming from.

In another example from my life, as a graduate student early-on in my program, one of my professors questioned whether white female students were writing my papers in exchange for “sexual favors.”  Evidently, the quality of the research work I was doing was “suspect”.

African Americans, like others in this country, walk the landscape of life. During the walk, there will be challenges, roadblocks, and obstacles made by others.  Some of these will be based out of fear, some out of ignorance, others out of jealousy and the remaining are simply from hate.

I currently spend dozens of hours, weekly, with African Americans engaging in a deliberate strategy that my white colleagues due to a combination of training, western orientation/approach or ignorance are unable to do… listening. Many of my colleagues simply hear and the information travels in one ear and out the other. In listening, I seek to provide a safe space for the expression and release of pain and suffering.

Yet, among patients, there is a common theme: avoidance, denial, rejection of what has been experienced, the few who choose to self-medicate through alcohol or drugs, or those who seek to hide in big houses, expensive cars and flashy clothes while suffering silently.

The questions often asked include the following:

  • How do I avoid these feelings?
  • When will the pain of hurtful words go away?
  • What tricks can I use to just forget about it?

Avoidance? Distancing? Tricks? Self-deception?

Following is a story of a man, who, while walking the landscape, has found his path blocked not only by others but by himself. Here is his story.

*********************************************

Dear Dr. Kane,

 I am writing because I have lost my way.  I have read your writings and hope you can help me.  I am an African American male who has lived my entire life in white America.  I am responding to the trauma of whiteness and their power that is overwhelming me.

 I feel that my life has been one of surrendering my power to white people.  I grew up learning that they were always right and that I was wrong.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest in a predominantly white town that has now become a mid-sized city.  My family was one of the very few black people in the area.  My playmates, classmates and friends were all white. 

 All through school I was known as Black Joe.  Not Joseph, my given name, or Joey or just Joe, but rather Black Joe.  When I was in the third grade, a white classmate called me a “nigger” and everyone laughed, and pointed fingers at me. At the time I did not know what a “nigger” was, but I knew from the way it was said and the laughter that followed, it was a bad thing.

 My parents did not speak up for me.  In fact, they remained quiet as I took the abuse.  They, just like the white people around me, never felt that I would be successful.  I went on to prove them wrong. I was smart, I knew I was going to be successful.

 My mistake was that in focusing on proving myself acceptable to them, I gave them my power.  As an adult, I paid a terrible price for my success. I had the high paying job, expensive car, and a big house but I also have had a series of extramarital affairs resulting in divorces, not being on speaking terms with my adult children, and a strong dependence on alcohol.

 I wanted to take back my power, so I made the commitment to attend a local Alcohol Anonymous meeting that was conducted via video conferencing due to the coronavirus outbreak.  For the first time, I spoke out about the pain of being a black man living in a white town. 

 I got a lot of positive feedback and I was feeling really good until someone spoke over the receiver, at first calling out my name and then repeatedly saying “nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger.”  The facilitator shut off the microphone, but it was too late.  I felt humiliated and ashamed.

 I felt so betrayed. I never returned to another AA meeting.  What was really telling was I had completely forgotten about the incident of being called a nigger in the 3rd grade but the incident at the AA meeting took me back to that time.  I am still drinking heavily to this very day. I am drinking an average of two half-gallons of scotch per week.

 I have sought acceptance from others and have failed to obtain this.  As I write to you, I don’t know what I want and yet, in your response, I hope to find wisdom that will show me the way.

 Bless you Dr. Kane,

Wandering Alone Mount Vernon, WA 

**************************************************

My Dear Readers,

His story is similar to many African American men and women who have suffered emotionally while seeking to climb the “ladder of acceptance”. What they never really understand is that this ladder is an illusion.  Acceptance by others may never be achieved. And if it is, it may be withdrawn or snatched away without hesitation, justification, or notice.

The 3R’s & The Survival of the Fittest

Psychological trauma has been a key factor in the lives of African Americans beginning in early childhood.  Where their white peers are allowed to just learn the lessons of the 3 R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) without the concern of racial bias, black children are abandoned in the white educational system and, barring strong parental interaction or oversight at school, they are left to navigate the educational landscape alone, expected to survive exposure to racism, rejection, and rebuke without support.

“I have sought acceptance from others and have failed to obtain this.”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Acceptance and Understanding

“Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five-tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid. Needs lower down in the hierarchy must be satisfied before individuals can attend to needs higher up. From the bottom of the hierarchy upwards, the needs are physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.”

McLeod, Saul. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”. Psychology Today. March 20, 2020.

Once the physiological and safety needs are met, Maslow states that “the person… will hunger for affectionate relationships with people in general for acceptance into the group.”

Although acceptance can be defined as the action or process of being received by the group as adequate or suitable, it is also defined as the internalized need to be accepted as you are.  The desire to be accepted as you are, can also lead to the willingness to tolerate difficult situations.

It is the nature of human beings to want to be accepted, valued, validated, and viewed with esteem from a desired group. Problems develop when the value, validation and esteem is one sided or focused in one direction.

The Reality of Black & White

“We are still living in a society where dark things are devalued, and white things are valued.”

  • Margaret Beale Spencer, 2010

Due to the way that education system set up, and values are learned, the idea that they are superior is consciously reinforced to the white children while the idea that BBIPOC people are inferior is subconsciously, unconsciously, and continually reinforced to black and brown children. Nearly 67 years following the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling and 12 years after the election of the country first black president, white children have an overwhelming white bias, and black children have a bias towards white (Spencer 2010).

The Willingness to Tolerate Difficult Situations

The trap that sucks in many African Americans is the willingness to tolerate difficult situations in order to gain acceptance.  In many cases, these situations are traumatic and psychologically wounding, often resulting in emotional and mental scarring.

The problem is that consciously we know that acceptance is not something that can be forced, yet subconsciously and unconsciously, there is a willingness to tolerate the difficult situation until acceptance has been achieved.

The Myth of Sisyphus: The Story of African Americans Being “Played”

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity.  Sisyphus was undeterred; he pushed the rock right back up every time it rolled down.  He refused to surrender to gravity.

The moral of this story is we must learn to embrace our purpose (the rock) in life. Once we accept it as the objective of our being, we should give everything it takes to achieve it.  Most importantly, no matter how much we lose in our quest, we must never back down until we fulfill our potential.

So, what is the bottom line we learn from Sisyphus?  Embrace the rock. Be persistent.  Work hard.  Never give up.

Now, let’s apply this to African Americans struggling to be accepted by a hostile group who view themselves as superior and those seeking “acceptance” are inferior.  In this modern-day uphill struggle, the “rock” is the acceptance African Americans seek to achieve from the dominant group.

The reality (and not moral) of this story is that African Americans are being played. They are allowing themselves to be believe the illusion that they will ever be acceptable to the dominant group.  Yet, as they continue to do so, to seek acceptance from others, they continue to embrace the rock. To be persistent.  To work hard.  To never give up.”

“You’re Fooling You

“Ah tell me who’s fooling who.

You ain’t fooling me.

You’re fooling you.

You’re Fooling You, The Dramatics (1975)

 The Golden Rule: “You Have To Be Twice As Good As Them”

Rowan: “Did I not raise you for better? How many times have I told you? You have to be what?”

Olivia:   “Twice as good.”

Rowan: “You have to be twice as good to get half of what they have.”

Scandal. ABC. 2012-2018.

For whites, there is a saying: “Whoever has the gold makes the rules”. For black people it is a statement of exclusion and survival. Variations of the preceding quote have been drummed into the minds of African Americans by their parents inter-generationally since slavery over 400 years ago.

An Unequal Playing Field

The effects of these parental demands upon black children is not only mentally taxing but can be emotionally overwhelming as well. They leave the children vulnerable to believing that striving for acceptance and eventually for personal success is like Sisyphus, rolling the rock up the mountain in order to “get half of what they have”. But before they even get there, they must first roll the rock up the mountain known as “acceptance.”

Self-Acceptance

It is known that acceptance and understanding are emotional needs to feel alright and to know that others accept you as you are.  However, this can be a slippery slope for African Americans who prioritized the “acceptance by others” over the acceptance of self.

Acceptance is an entity controlled from within the individual. Acceptance is an entity that cannot be forced.  Self-acceptance is an individual’s satisfaction or happiness with oneself, and it is a necessity for good mental wellness.

Self-acceptance, unlike acceptance by others, is an “alone” entity.  It involves self-understanding and a realistic, subjective awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses.

In conclusion, self-acceptance is extremely important. If a person does not accept themselves for who they really are, they will continuously create ongoing problems within their own life.

*********************************************

Concluding Words-Dr. Kane

“I once was lost, but now I am found, was blind, but now I see”

My Dear Young Man,

I appreciate the sharing of your story.  It is one to which many African Americans can relate.  Yours is a story of endurance, pain and suffering.  It is also a story of accomplishments and socio-economic achievement.

However, as you sought like Sisyphus to reach the top of the mountain, you fell for the trap of seeking their acceptance instead of seeking self-acceptance.  The acceptance of others may or may not ever come.  And yet, you ignored the cries, pleas and calling of the person most important in your life, the Self.

It is true that you have gained success and wealth yet, look at the price you paid for it. In trying to self-medicate, you are consuming a gallon of alcohol per week. If you continue on this road traveled by so many black men before you, it will only lead to your demise. The black community will have lost another valuable soul… taken too soon.

Your landscape can be open, vast and wide.  Or you can continue to slip quietly away filled with bitterness.  Though it didn’t seem like it, the person who hid in the darkness during the AA meeting calling out “nigger, nigger, nigger” gave you a gift. The gift of exposure. It showed you that that environment was not a safe place for you to be.

Five R’s of RELIEF

Instead of drowning your anguish in the darkness of alcohol; reach out and take a respite (step away), embrace your reactions, be reflective (balancing feeling & thoughts), be responsive to self (talk to me), and constantly reevaluate what occurred and how it was experienced.

The Impact of “Time Heals Wounds”

Historically black parents, so focused on their children’s success, have neglected protecting them from the psychological wounding of microaggressions.  We have been told that “time will heal wounds.”  This is not true.  Time does not heal, it is the work we do in therapy, over time that will heal the wounds.

What is true is that microaggressive wounds lie deeply in the hearts of the victims. Such words or actions can come from strangers, coworkers, family members and friends you may have known for many years.  The objective is not to either ignore, react, or to rise above the insult. The objective is to understand that the traumatic impact remains, but the wound will heal to the point that the traumatic impact will be lighter and have a much smaller influence as you walk your landscape.

As for myself, I remained psychologically impacted by the racially and sexually charged statement leveled at me in graduate school.  I remembered those words as I spoke before the United State Congress in 2008 as the Clinical Consultant in Clinical Traumatology for the Congressional Black Caucus. Those words were painful but, because of my own acceptance of self, I was able to continue my journey of self-discovery despite their influence.

Now, what will you do? Continue down the road well paved with the souls of many lost black men or will you walk your landscape and seek your journey of self-discovery? If you choose to seek self-discovery, the first step is prioritizing self-acceptance over acceptance by others.  In doing this as you interact with others; allow the following statement to guide you along the way.

Loving the Self

As much as I love you, I love me more.

Loving me more doesn’t mean I love you less.

It just means I love me more.

More.

Focus on the journey… not the destination.

******************************************

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

  • John Robert Lewis (1940-2020), Former US Congressman and Civil Rights Activist

 

Until the next time,

Remaining … in Our Corner

One thought on “In Our Corner: Responding to Microaggressions in the Pursuit of Self-Acceptance

  1. Thank you for a wonderful reminder about the acceptance of self. It is a struggle at times but getting away reminds us about who we are and the importance we serve in a world that may never accept us as a piece of the puzzle one that is important to the puzzle.

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